Why I Haven’t Felt at Home in a Presbyterian Church for Three Years

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Author Rev. Kerri Allen

I did not grow up Presbyterian, and I can’t identify as a ‘cradle’ or ‘prenatal’ Presbyterian, or any of the ways that I have heard born-and-bred Presbyterians describe themselves in order to firmly establish their Presbyterian street cred. No, as my longtime Presbyterian pastor once told my Committee on the Preparation for Ministry (CPM), “Kerri chooses to be Presbyterian.”

My pastor and I used to argue about the nuance of “chooses.” Not only am I Presbyterian, but I am also firmly Reformed and unabashedly Calvinist. So, although I chose to become a member of my hometown church of Dayton Avenue Presbyterian Church in St. Paul, MN, I also believe that God’s providence led me to that particular community of faith and this particular tradition. Presbyterianism chose me.

As one who had a first career working in politics and government, the structure of Presbyterian governance is familiar and comfortable to me. Like the “checks and balances” of our republic, I firmly believe in the mutual accountability and responsibility of our polity. The Reformed belief that there is a God who is active in all spheres of life, including the social polis, and that we are called to be actively engaged as a faithful response, resonated with me in the core of my being. So although I have never set foot in Montreat and I don’t identify as one of the “frozen chosen,” I am thoroughly Presbyterian.

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Three years ago, I left a congregation where I was serving as a pastor after a ruling elder told me that they hated the black race.
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I hold a deep affection for and value my relationship with the Reformed Tradition, for Presbyterianism, and for our denomination. This is why it is particularly painful that I have not felt comfortable worshiping on a regular basis in a Presbyterian church for the past three years.

trayvon martin bing public domainThree years ago, I left a congregation where I was serving as a pastor after a ruling elder told me that they hated the black race.

This took place after I preached a sermon on Trayvon Martin and the injustice of the George Zimmerman verdict. I spoke of the pervasive racism in our nation and how that manifests in violence, particularly against black boys. I invited the congregation to view the humanity of Martin and little black boys in general. I preached, “Trayvon Martin. Murdered. Dead. Gone. Robbed of the chance for the hints of responsibility to grow, slowly, fitfully, slowly, painfully into glimpses, and then flashes, then bursts of adulthood. Robbed of the chance to grow into adulthood.”

Perhaps naively, I never imagined that a sermon would cause such an uproar. But a handful of congregants got upset and contacted the senior pastor. One man even met with the session to complain that he had gone back and re-listened to the recordings of all of my sermons and that I preached on the subject of race “all of the time.”

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Perhaps especially, I was embarrassed that those in the majority sat in silence and did nothing.
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I was never told who these individuals were. The senior pastor didn’t think I needed to know. The session received complaints and never discussed them with me. I was told that people were offended because they felt like I had called them racist and that I couldn’t serve in “this type of congregation” in the PC(USA) and “preach a sermon like that.” Even after I was confronted by a member telling me about their hatred of African Americans, the congregation was somehow the victim of my sermon.

shutterstock_1216857Perhaps you think this is an isolated incident. Yet daily, someone shares something racially hateful with a pastor who simply nods and agrees. This type of emotional violence is inflicted upon blacks within our denomination with an unexamined and sinful regularity. It is a sin that is usually perpetuated by the most well-meaning and seemingly good people. It is the passive sin of silence and inaction, of paralyzation, and even laziness.

In January 2015, the Special Offerings Office wasn’t trying to be malicious when they went forward with an “edgy” ad campaign that was roundly criticized as racist and insensitive. The offering campaign utilized troubling and stereotyped images of young children of color, even after being warned by the Advocacy Committees, ministry staff, and others that the ads were racist and unavoidably reinforced the stereotypes used.

Last summer at Montreat Conference Center, Presbyterians gathered to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of King’s visit to the Conference Center in a gathering called, “Martin Luther King Jr.’s Unfinished Agenda.” In the midst of a worship service in which the nine victims of the Charleston terrorist attack were remembered by name, a teaching elder yelled out, “Dylann Roof, say his name!” Yes, as Christians we affirm that God’s forgiveness is for all people, but to shout Dylann Roof’s name in a service honoring those he killed sounded like an easy dismissal of the nine victims. It was like shouting “all lives matter” in front of dead black bodies.

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As a confessional tradition, we will never be able to to confront our demons as long as we talk about racism as though it only exists “out there” in the world and not within our own churches and hearts.
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I am thankful that I was not present, but I was still heartbroken by the incident. I felt embarrassment for our denomination. I was horrified that no one from Montreat offered an apology, at least as far as has been reported. Perhaps especially, I was embarrassed that those in the majority sat in silence and did nothing.

pcusa logoThese two examples are higher profile, but they are not isolated instances. They are reflective of the daily sins and practices that exist within our very denomination. As a confessional tradition, we will never be able to to confront our demons as long as we talk about racism as though it only exists “out there” in the world and not within our own churches and hearts. Jesus had something to say about ignoring the log in our own eye.

In 1967, an auspice year in American history and the struggle against racism, the United Presbyterian Church ratified a Confession, which nearly fifty years later we in the church must still recollect:

“God has created the peoples of the earth to be one universal family. In his (sic) reconciling love he overcomes the barriers between brothers and sisters and breaks down every form of discrimination based on racial or ethnic difference, real or imaginary. The church is called to bring all people to receive and uphold one another as persons in all relationships of life: in employment, housing, education, leisure, marriage, family, church, and the exercise of political rights. Therefore the church labors for the abolition of all racial discrimination and ministers to those injured by it. Congregations, individuals, or groups of Christians who exclude, dominate, or patronize their fellow Christians, however subtly, resist the Spirit of God and bring contempt on the faith which they profess.” (C67 9.44)

It would do congregations and the denomination well to revisit the Confession of 1967.

Photo Credit; Kerri Allen

Photo Credit; Kerri Allen

In this important series of reflections, I have read my colleagues truth-telling imperatives about how racism and white privilege operate in our culture and church. With each narrative, we make ourselves vulnerable, exposing hurts and pains, telling stories that we know from experience are not always validated.

I add my story as a prayer, offered in hope, invitation, and challenge. My invitation is that we might live into our Presbyterianism and assume mutual responsibility and accountability for one another. My prayer is that more of my white sisters and brothers will assume some of this same vulnerability. My hope is that we can confess the sin of racism as it exists and operates in our church. And my challenge is that the denomination I love might move beyond complicit silence and actively repent of the sin of racism.

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AUTHOR BIO: Rev. Kerri N. Allen is a Reformed theologian, PhD student, and hospital chaplain in Chicago. Prior to responding to a call in ministry, Kerri had a first career in politics, serving as a political appointee at multiple levels of government, including serving as a legislative assistant in the United States Senate with an expertise in healthcare policy. Now, as a student in theology and ethics at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Kerri uses her diverse experiences to focus on disparities in quality of healthcare for black women in the United States. Originally from St. Paul, MN when Kerri is not buried in a book or writing a paper, she enjoys hiking, travel, watching sports, cooking, or spending time with one of her many nieces or nephews.

Read more articles in this issue Call to Confession: Race, White Privilege and the Church!

8 Responses to Why I Haven’t Felt at Home in a Presbyterian Church for Three Years

  1. This was a good article. I think the hardest thing (at first) is just to *listen*. Not listen-and-wait-for-my-chance-to-respond. Not listen, hoping to find out where you went *wrong* and therefore can be dismissed. Not listen and grow increasingly angry on how you are dismissing obvious truths that we all accept.

    Just listening.

    In time comes the deciding and the doing.

    For now, there is listening, and hearing, and thinking, and trying to put the pieces together, and seeing the person speaking, and trying to find the connections.

    That’s listening.

    I am truly sorry for your experience. I was raised in the Reformed tradition (PCUSA and PCA), and now find myself in the Christian & Missionary Alliance denomination, which is, of course, an outgrowth of the Presbyterian Church. I honestly cannot imagine what it would feel like to have my faith tradition and my own body-of-Christ reject me, even if they found what I was saying to be extremely uncomfortable.

    I hope you will be finding your right place in the church, which comprises so many unexpected members and so many surprising experiences.

  2. I’m stunned at the way you were treated; as a Presbyterian (albeit a Canadian one) I’m shocked that due process wasn’t followed in bringing forward the complaint about you. There is so much wrong with what happened to you that I can hardly fathom what you must have felt. I can only offer you my prayers and my promise to do my part to treat everyone equally, respectfully and lovingly, regardless of gender, race or any other identifier that we might use to mark one another. I also pray that you find healing and wholeness, and that you only give up your struggle when we all see each other as nothing more or less than God’s equally beloved children.

  3. A couple of things: First, it is unfortunate that an elder in your church (or anyone else for that matter) would come out and say that they hated the black race. There is no place for blatant racism. That being said, you opened yourself up for a lot of criticism when you made the decision to preach a sermon on the Trayvon Martin case. As far as I know, you were not there when the incident happened, and you have no right to second guess the jury in this case. You did not hear all the evidence that the jury heard, and for you to pontificate about the unjust nature of the verdict is not appropriate to say the least. More broadly, many of us Presbyterians are getting really tired of the left wing social activism that continues to pour out of Louisville. Our church leaders wonder why our membership is dropping faster than Marco Rubio’s poll numbers. If they continue on their course of forcing this liberal rubbish down people’s throats, it’s only going to get worse…

    • Dear Robert,
      This last Sunday, I preached on Jesus feeding the 5,000. Jesus saw the needs of the people, asked the disciples to go see what they had, and then used what they had to meet the people’s needs. You may call this sort of behavior, “left wing social activism”, but I call it following the example of Jesus. –Peace be with you.

    • What unmitigated gall. How dare you say what a person called of God can say in the pulpit. How dare you support the findings of the jury when you were not there either. How dare you as a supposed Christian stand up for someone using profane language. Perhaps Dearman you might need to be reminded that large numbers of wrong thinking, wrong hearted people are still wrong. I pray that you find a true faith.
      Let go of your racism and embrace the teachings of that left wing activist that was crucified at Calvary.

  4. GAB says:

    I am just heart-sick to hear what happened to you, Rev. Kerri. I am so, so sorry. And I am angry that such racism is allowed to persist in our churches. We need voices like yours to reveal to us what we are not seeing on our own, that lives are at risk, that lives are being lost, that #BlackLivesMatter . The lives that are being lost are reminiscent of the lynchings of decades past. The senior minister should have exercised some leadership on this issue and defended you and required an apology from those who made such outrageous claims. If we aren’t willing to “go to the mat” on such a fundamental issue as the personal and structural racism that is prevalent in our society, we have abrogated our right to call ourselves Christians. I want you to come and preach that sermon again at my church, preach it not to comfort the afflicted but to afflict the comfortable.
    God help us,
    Rev. Geoff Browning

  5. Pastor, preacher, prophet…Kerri,

    I add my expressions of frustration and disappointment to those that have already been expressed in the sad and shameful things done to you. As a white pastor serving a congregation of white members, I have been scolded for quoting too many non-white theologians, writers, artists, and social-political activists. Choosing to meet people where they are, I became more careful about the sources of the quotes I used. It is a choice I regret. My complicit silence has kept the peace but has taken its toll on my conscience and my faith and has, in all honesty, most likely done a grave disservice to my parishioners.

    Thank you for sharing your experiences and for issuing your prayer and your challenge. May the Spirit sustain you as you continue the good work that God has begun in you.

    Penitently yours in Christ,
    Debra

  6. An Obituary for Colorblindness

    On July 13th, 2013, when George Zimmerman was found not guilty of murdering Trayvon Benjamin Martin, the theory of racial color blindness in the United States died on the courtroom floor from a massive heart attack.

    The racial color blindness theory had grown up quite a bit since it was born out the civil rights era of the 1960’s. It was a well behaved, gently intentioned theory with a great philosophical ancestry. It proposed to judge people only on their individual merit, on “The content of their character” rather than “The color of their skin.” The theory of color blindness insisted that it “Did not see color” and that it “treated everyone the same.”

    What Americans did not acknowledge was that the theory of racial color blindness had a huge birth defect: the people in our country actually live and act very differently. We have no common culture in how we treat others. Many people grew up not only with broken sidewalks, but with twisted families. Some people had learned to live with an attitude of suspicion. They understood personal protection as a fully loaded weapon rather than the sense of security that comes from knowing all of your neighbors names. They were taught to follow people in order to appear threatening, and to never trust or to follow the instructions of a police officer. –Not everyone follows the golden rule and treats others as they want to be treated. Instead many people were taught to skew that rule and treat others just as they have been treated: badly.

    With all of these differences in actual culture and behavior, we should not be surprised when our theory of American racial colorblindness crumples at our feet. Without an over arching principle of some sort of commonly held belief, there is absolutely no way to overcome our fear of others who are different than we are. Without something bigger than the American freedom to become who we want to be and the liberty to do whatever we want that is legal, there can be no cure for this deadly disease that shows up with its terrible symptoms of racism and intolerance.

    What is needed, more than anything else, is a good old fashioned dose of love. –The self sacrificial kind that loves your neighbor while also loving yourself. The kind of love that Jesus showed by having long conversations with the despised and the outcasts, the forgotten sick and the poor. The kind of love that sees the systemic poverty and the broken schools, the lack of healthcare and the chronic unemployment in our country as the cancer that guns all of us of us down, no matter what our zip code is.

    While our racial colorblindness may now be dead on arrival, this opens up the opportunity for us to look around us and to open up our hearts to meet people where they are, to find out who they really are as individuals. To get a sense of how they think, how they interact with others and how they have been hurt and broken just like the rest of us. It gives us an opportunity for us to practice what we preach and to show love and to build true relationships in the world, everyday. I hope and pray that we will.

    Rev. Karen Fitz La Barge,
    ThoughtfulBoldness.com

    The above was published as a Letter to the Editor in the Allegan County Newspaper, August 8, 2013, and also printed in the church newsletter. I also preached about Trayvon in a sermon on 4/22/2012 in our PCUSA congregation, First Presbyterian Church of Allegan.

    While I did not get the same backlash response as you did Kerri, it certainly did “afflict the comfortable” with the evidence of the disease of racism that is still alive and well in our country. We are indeed broken and in need of the Savior. Hugs and peace.

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